1966: Leftists during the Guatemalan Civil War

Add comment March 6th, 2020 Headsman

The declassified CIA cable that follows (original here) captures an extrajudicial execution of leftists during Guatemala’s long dirty war.

The following Guatemalan Communists and terrorists were executed secretly by Guatemalan authorities on the night of 6 March 1966:

A. Victor Manuel Gutierrez Garbin, leader of the PGT group living in exile in Mexico.

B. Francisco “Paco” Amado Granados, prominent Guatemalan leftist and a leader of the 13 November Revolutionary Movement (MR-13), guerrilla organization headed by Marco Antonio Yon Sosa.

C. Carlos Barillas Sosa (also known as Carlos Sosa Barillas), half-brother of Yon Sosa.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Execution,Guatemala,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Revolutionaries,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1945: Giovanni Cerbai, partisan

Add comment February 10th, 2020 Headsman

Italian partisan Giovanni Cerbai was shot on this date in 1945.

A communist who fought in the Garibaldi Battalion during the Spanish Civil War, “Giannetto” was interred in transit through France and spent the early part of World War II confined to the Bourbon island panopticon of Ventotene* — a misery shared by many other prospective guerrillas.

“While the flames of the war grew and approached all around, while in the cities and in the countryside workers, employees, professionals and intellectuals were agitating, moving, pressing for peace and freedom, in Italian prisons and confinement islands hundreds and thousands of anti-fascists pined in their forced inactivity,” wrote fellow Ventotene detainee Luigi Longo in his memoir. “The island of Ventotene was like the capital of this captive world. In the spring of 1943 it gathered about a thousand leaders and humble militants from all the currents of Italian anti-fascism … We shared our common sufferings, the same hopes and an equal love of freedom.”

This prison was liberated by American forces in December 1943 but Cerbai had already escaped in August, joining the partisans.

“A fighter of exceptional enthusiasm and daring,” per the hagiographic words of his posthumous military valor decoration, he had a brief but distinguished service in the field, surviving the Battle of Porta Lame. Cerbai was eventually captured, and shot at the outset of a notorious weekslong massacre of prisoners by the fascists.

There’s a street named for him in his native Bologna.

* Another communist political prisoner in this same fortress, name of Altiero Spinelli, drew up with fellow leftists in 1941 an illicit text titled “Manifesto for a free and united Europe” — more familiarly known as the Ventotene Manifesto. (Full text here.) Spinelli’s document called for a federation of European states to mitigate the potential for wars, a crucial precursor of the European Federalist Movement that Spinelli would co-found in 1943; Spinelli for this reason is a forefather of postwar European integration. And not just a forefather: he died in 1986 as a member of European parliament, having dedicated his postwar life to the project.

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1943: Lepa Radic, Yugoslav Partisan

Add comment February 8th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1943, young Yugoslav partisan Lepa Svetozara Radic went to a German gallows.

A Bosnian Serb — her village today lies in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska, steps inside the river that forms its border with Croatia — Lepa Radic was just 15 when Europe’s Axis powers invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941. Her family’s established left-wing affiliations brought them swift arrest by the fascist Ustashe, but Lepa and her sister escaped in December and joined Tito‘s Communist partisans.

In early 1943, Nazi Germany mounted a huge offensive against the partisans. On a strategic plane, the offensive failed: the partisans were able to preserve their command structure and fall back, also decisively defeating in the field their nationalist/monarchist rivals, the Chetniks, which set them up to dominate postwar Yugoslavia.

But for those upon whom the blow fell, it was a winter of terrible suffering. The Germans claimed 11,915 partisans killed, 2,506 captured … and 616 executed.

So it was with Lepa Radic. This Serbian Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya was captured during the engagement trying to defend a clutch of civilians and wounded. They publicly noosed her at Bosanska Krupa after she scorned the opportunity to preserve her life by informing on fellow guerrillas with the badass retort, “my comrades will give their names when they avenge my death.” (Various translations of this parting dagger are on offer online.)

After the war, Yugoslavia honored her posthumously with the Order of the People’s Hero.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bosnia and Herzegovina,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Germany,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women,Yugoslavia

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1963: Tankeu Noé, Cameroon guerrilla

Add comment January 3rd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1963, Cameroon guerrilla Tankeu Noé

He had been a commander of rebels in Cameroon’s Littoral Province in the 1950s — fighting what was then a nationalist war against the French, who still held the central African territory as a colony.*

Cameroon attained independence in 1960 but Noé’s outlawed Marxist Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC) stayed outlawed, its leadership in exile. Cameroon’s post-colonial state looked a lot to the UPC like the colonial state: working hand in glove with the French military, both parties intent on crushing the militants. The new ruler of Cameroon, Ahmadou Ahidjo,** used the continuing fight against the insurgency to consolidate power in his own hands, eventually establishing a one-party state.

And the fight was exceptionally brutal, with mass forced resettlement and tens of thousands killed across the last years of French rule and the first years of “independence”. In one noteworthy incident in 1962, dozens of UPC fighters were asphyxiated after being packed together into a sealed train. When the Catholic archbishop publicized the incident and announced plans to say a requiem mass, Ahidjo promptly had him expelled.

Still fighting, Tankeu Noé was captured by the new boss/old boss joint military operations in 1963. Exploiting new powers arrogated that year to suppress regime opponents, the government had him shot in public in Douala, lashed to a power pole.

His movement was strangled over the ensuing years, effectively vanishing after the 1971 execution of Ernest Ouandie. It’s resurfaced as a legitimate political party in 1991 and has contested and sometimes won seats in various elections ever since.

* France had taken it from Germany after World War I.

** Ahidjo finally resigned for health reasons in 1982; within months, he would take exile refuge in France, pursued by an in absentia death sentence. He never returned to Cameroon; he was officially rehabilitated after his 1989 death in Senegal.

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1974: Walkiria Afonso da Costa, the last Araguaia guerrilla

Add comment October 25th, 2019 Headsman

Walkiria (or Walquiria) Afonso Costa was summarily executed on this date in 1974.

Sickly and emaciated, the 27-year-old was the last guerrilla left in the field after the two-year campaign of the Brazilian dictatorship to suppress the Communist insurgency in Araguaia — or at least she was the last who was taken into custody.

A pedagogy student at the University of Minas Gerais, she had learned to shoot on forest rambles with her father and so perhaps came better prepared for the wilderness life than some comrades.

According to her sister, the sociology professor Valéria Costa Couto, the military had all but wiped out the guerrillas in a Christmas 1973 ambush, with only Walkiria and a couple of others managing to escape and hold out a few months longer.

There is a street named for her in her home city of Belo Horizonte, and an epigraph from her deceased father awaits if her remains are ever located for proper burial: “Do you think they killed me? They raised an ideal. Do you think they buried me? They planted a seed.”

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1949: Li Bai, PLA spy

Add comment May 7th, 2019 Headsman

Red spy Li Bai was executed in the Pudong district of Shanghai on this date in 1949.

Li Bai and his circuitry immortalized in stone in Shanghai’s Century Park. (cc) image from (checks notes) “Kgbkgbkgb”

A survivor of the Party’s epic Long March Li Bai (English Wikipedia entry | Chinese) was a Party-trained wireless operator who was detailed to Shanghai with the 1937 outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War.

He was fortunate to survive arrest by the Japanese while transmitting from occupied Shanghai in 1942. (The Japanese took him for a mere enthusiast.) Even more fortunate from his handlers’ standpoint was the interest his radio skills subsequently attracted from the nationalist Kuomintang, which recruited him into service that Li Bai was only too happy to accept.

For the next several years, he sent to the Communists voluminous inside information about the disposition of their opponents in the endgame stage of the Chinese Civil War. He was detected in the last days of 1948, sending to the People’s Liberation Army the troop dispositions that would enable it to overrun the capitals in the subsequent months. Not three weeks after Li Bai’s execution in Shanghai that city fell to the Communists; by year’s end, the Kuomintang had evacuated the mainland for its so-far permanent Formosan redoubt.

There’s a 1958 Chinese biopic about him, titled The Unfailing Radio Wave; the embed below is one of many subsequent readaptations:

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Martyrs,Shot,Spies,Wartime Executions

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1975: Nine Iranian communists

Add comment April 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1975,* Iran extrajudicially executed nine political prisoners.


This photo is a dramatic re-staging — evocative of a famous photo of executions in revolutionary Iran a few years later, or perhaps in the white-clad central prisoner’s raised arms, the Goya painting that forms this very blog‘s frontispiece. (Contrary to the reconstruction, the executioners had just one Uzi and took turns spraying it at their victims.) It’s part of a fascinating project by Azadeh Akhlaghi to portray 17 pivotal deaths in Iran’s history.
We took the prisoners to the high hills above Evin. They were blind-folded and their hands were tied. We got them off the minibus and had them sit on the ground. Then, [SAVAK agent Reza] Attarpour told them that, just as your friends have killed our comrades, we have decided to execute you — he was the brain behind those executions. Jazani and the others began protesting. I do not know whether it was Attarpour or Colonel Vaziri who first pulled out a machine gun and started shooting them. I do not remember whether I was the 4th or 5th person to whom they gave the machine gun. I had never done that before. At the end, Sa’di Jalil Esfahani [another SAVAK agent, known as Babak] shot them in their heads [to make sure that they were dead].

Account of a former Savak agent, Bahman Naderipour, who was executed after the Iranian Revolution. The New York Times report of Naderipour’s public trial has him recounting:

“We took them out of the jail and put them in a minibus and drove them to the hills. We had only one submachine gun, an Uzi, among us, so we took turns shooting them … we didn’t give them a chance to make a last declaration. We blindfolded them and handcuffed them and then shot them. I think was the fourth to shoot. We took the bodies back to the prison. and we had the newspapers print that they were killed during a jailbreak. We had the coroner confirm this version.”

The victims were Ahmad Jalil-Afshar, Mohammad Choupanzadeh, Bijan Jazani, Mash’oof (Saeed) Kalantari (Jazani’s maternal uncle), Aziz Sarmadi, Abbas Sourki, Hassan Zia Zarifi, Mostafa Javan Khoshdel and Kazem Zolanvar.\
The last two named were members of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, the still-extant MEK back when it was still a standard Marxist revolutionary movement and not a cult.

The first seven named were members of the Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas, a proscribed Communist guerrilla organization.

One of those seven, Bijan Jazani, was a co-founder of that organ and one of the greatest Communist intellectuals Iran ever produced. (For a flavor of his thought kick back with the Jazani collection in Capitalism and Revolution in Iran.) With him was Hassan Zia-Zarifi, long a collaborator in leftist circles.

The proceedings that had landed them in prison in the first place had already put them in the global spotlight especially given the horrific torture applied to the defendants. (Among other things, these seven were adopted by Amnesty International as watchlist political prisoners.) International pressure had staved off juridical death sentences … so the matter was handled extra-juridically instead, with the standard insulting cover story, “shot trying to escape.”

Iran reaped a considerable diplomatic fallout from these murders. Its embassies around the world were rocked by protests of emigres and human rights campaigners in the ensuing weeks; that May, a team of communist assassins gunned down two American Air Force officers stationed in Tehran to train the Shah’s security forces — claiming responsibility “in retaliation for the murder of nine of our members.” (UPI dispatch from Boston (US) Globe, May 21, 1975)

There’s a lengthy lecture on Jazani et al by Communist historian Doug Greene.

* Some sources give April 19 instead. I have not been able to resolve the discrepancy to my satisfaction.

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1939: Aleksei Gastev, Soviet scientific manager

Add comment April 15th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the Old Bolshevik Aleksei Gastev, a theorist of scientific management for the Soviet state, was shot in Stalin’s purges.

Expelled in his youth from tsarist teaching ranks due to his radicalism, Gastev (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) traced his revolutionary bona fides back to the 1905 Revolution (he fought in it) and even before (as an ally and correspondent of Lenin).

With the advent of the latter’s revolution, Gastev founded the Central Institute of Labor (CIT), and CIT’s training firm Ustanovka (“setup” or “installation”) — organs dedicated, respectively, to the study of work, and to the promulgation of the new science of the workplace throughout the Soviet economy.

It was a socialist perspective on Taylorism, that practice of scientific management that was also transforming capitalist production; like Taylor, Gastev aimed to systematize the routine operations on the factory floor, to learn the most efficient way to wield a hammer or a shovel and expel from the labor force the indulgence of artisanal idiosyncracy and rule-of-thumb work; more broadly, Gastev aimed to revolutionize the way work was conceptualized by Soviet people, bending the mental and behavioral orientation of workers to optimize them for the demands of industrial production.

“Even when we exit the gates of the factory, still we carry the factory,” he wrote, positing a question that demanded “a cultural ustanovka.”

Fear of this very thing haunted Europe in this moment and has never left her nightmares in the century since. The CIT juxtaposed curiously with the almost simultaneous publication of some of the seminal dystopian mechanization literature — like Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s We (1921), in which the rational ordering of society annihilates freedom, and Karel Capek‘s R.U.R. (1920), the play that borrowed a Czech term for unfree work to give the world’s lexicon that wonderful word “robot”. Unsettling to many, this twining of man and machine was understood by Gastev as an emancipatory vista.

Gastev’s ideal worker is neither the oxen brute of Taylor’s dreams, nor the lifeless robot of Capek’s nightmare. He is rather an active, sentient, and creative part of the productive process who behaves like a seasoned, conscious, and well-trained warrior. Armed with sharpness of vision, acute hearing, attentiveness to environment and detail, precision and even grace of movement, and “scoutlike” inquisitiveness about the relationship and locations of things and peoples, he enters the factory as though it were a battle-field with commander-like briskness, regimental routine, and a martial strut. For him, no romance, no heroic individual deeds — only a relentless battle waged scientifically for production.

But the robot is present in Gastev’s vision nonetheless: it is the machine itself, not the man. For Gastev, the machine also takes on a life that gives it not only the power to produce and enrich, but also to train, to inspire, to organize. His wildest visions of 1918-19 are previsions of Capek and Zamyatin and celebrations of a coming event often warned about in science fiction: the takeover by machines. Gastev could never quite decide whether the machine was to be the master or the servant of man. Since he continued to use the machine metaphor, he eventually opened himself to attack by those who opposed his policies on other grounds. But Gastevism differed from administrative utopia — the heavy-handed martialing and mobilization of raw labor in a palpably unequal hierarchy. Gastev’s man-machine meant a symbiosis of the two, interacting in a way never wholly understood even by himself. It clearly contained fearful elements. But Gastev himself, by all accounts, was not a cold-hearted machine-like fanatic but a warm and engaging person. He did not fear the power of the machine. He feared backwardness, passivity, and sloth. (Source)


Dziga Vertov‘s 1929 classic Man with a Movie Camera captures the excitement of industrialization and industrial workers.

On the side — to stave off the sloth — Gastev kept up an artistic output of his own as a poet of the Proletarian Culture movement; this exemplar (Order No. 2 from a work called “Ten Orders”) comes to us via Wonderlands of the Avant-Garde: Technology and the Arts in Russia of the 1920s, which notes that “what is produced is never specified; the emphasis rather is on the establishment of a certain pace of work, as if machines manufacture a new time — the rhythm of the new life.”

Chronometer, report to duty.
To the machines.
Rise.
Pause.
A charge of attention.
Supply.
Switch on.
Self-propulsion.
Stop.

The chronometer stopped for Gastev with his fall in late 1938, and he proceeded thence to the familiar fate of Stalin’s prey amongst the intelligentsia. As he associates with the positive, modernizing, and utopian strain of the Soviet experiment but not its failures or horrors his name is not blackened to posterity and the present-day Russian Federation’s Ministry of Economic Development sponsors an “A.K. Gastev Cup” award to honor advances in production.

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1958: Istvan Angyal, Hungarian revolutionary

Add comment December 1st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1958, Angyal Istvan was hanged for the failed 1956 Hungarian revolution.

A working-class Jew who survived Auschwitz as a boy — his mother and sister were not so fortunate — Angyal was a convinced leftist who became disaffected with the Hungarian regime not because of its Communism but because of its failure to realize the democratic and egalitarian aspirations of that ideology.

A fixture on the youthful intellectual ferment in Budapest in the early 1950s, he was one of the leaders of street protests against Soviet domination during the doomed Hungarian Revolution of 1956, even conferring personally with Prime Minister Imre Nagy during its last days. In a gesture that not all of his comrades would have supprted, he set out the hammer and sickle along with the Hungarian national flag on November 7, the very eve of the revolution’s defeat, arguing to Soviet troops that they were fighting against true communism.

He’s commemorated today at an Angyal István Park in Budapest; it’s evidently “a modern social place with free Internet” and a nifty paper plane art installation.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Hungary,Jews,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Treason

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1937: Vincenzo Baccala

Add comment November 29th, 2018 Headsman

Italian Communist Vincenzo Baccala was executed on this date in 1937 … but not by the fascists.

The blackshirted turn of his country in the 1920s had driven Vincenzo into emigre exile, pursued by an in absentia prison sentence for “subversive propaganda tending to insurrection and incitement of class hatred.” He went first in Paris and then in 1931 to the USSR.

Although present in the fortress of Communism at the Party’s direction, and eventually an outright Soviet citizen, Baccala came into trouble after criticizing Stalin in 1933 and had to leave his family in Odessa as he struggled to find work. Come the height of the purges in the later 1930s, he was predictably denounced.

Baccala’s wife Pia Piccioni swallowed a bitter draught of her own; unable to see her husband or find support amid Stalin’s purges, she returned to her native country, finding little comfort either in Mussolini‘s Italy (for obvious reasons) or in postwar Italy (where red comrades shied from traducing the USSR). She wrote a book about her own and Baccala’s experiences, Compagno Silenzio: Una vedova italiana del gulag racconta.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Italy,Russia,Shot,Torture,USSR

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